Prenatal Exposure to Alcohol, Drugs and Tobbaco Affects Brain Into Adolescence

Researchers at Children’s Hospital Boston and Boston Medical Center have found that the effects of fetal exposure to alcohol, drugs and tobacco persist into early adolescence.

The study used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scans to the effects on brain structure into early adolescence. Participants of the study included 35 young adolescents, with an average age of 12, prenatally exposed to cocaine, marijuana, alcohol or tobacco. Children with fetal alcohol syndrome were excluded from the study.

“We found that reductions in cortical gray matter and total brain volumes were associated with prenatal exposure to cocaine, alcohol or cigarettes,” says Michael Rivkin, MD, first author on the study. “Importantly, although volume reductions were associated with each of these three prenatal exposures, they were not associated with any one of these substances alone after controlling for other exposures.” The more substances a child was exposed to in utero, the greater the reduction in brain volume.

More than 1 million babies born annually in the US have been exposed to drugs, alcohol or tobacco in utero, making the findings of this study significant. The researchers say that health care providers should offer pregnant women comprehensive care to help them reduce the use of all chemical substances that affect the brain.

The findings of this study were published in the April issue of Pediatrics.

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